Neighbourhood Facebook groups: like or dislike?


By Samantha McGregor

Audio: Slightly overlapped, typing sound in the background

Voice 1: Hi, everyone! We just moved to the area two weeks ago and are looking for restaurant recommendations! What are your favourites?

Voice 2: Pulled into the driveway to find two kids, shovelling the driveway. When I asked them how much they wanted, they stared at each other, then told me they were just trying to help their neighbours out. Thank you, parents, for raising such great kids in Waterdown.

Voice 3: Please keep your pets safe — coyotes out in our backyard in the middle of the afternoon in the ravine area.

Voice 4: Cogeco Internet down … again.

Voice 5: Does anyone know how to get blood stains out of clothing? Asking for a friend.

Audio: Ambient Tech Music

Samantha McGregor: These comments you just heard are a few of the hundreds from a local neighbourhood Facebook group in Waterdown, Ontario. Waterdown is a community within the City of Hamilton, which is about an hour southwest of Toronto, right off the 403, and has a population of just under 30,000. Like many small towns across North America that sit just outside large metropolitan areas, Waterdown has a mix of new and old residents and suburban and rural areas.

Samantha McGregor: Neighbourhood Facebook groups, which are often only open to local residents, connect people from a particular area, sometimes a street or an entire city, around common interests. Waterdown has 91 different Facebook groups for residents to choose from, like community awareness or mom and dad groups, to buy and sell and even gluten-free or zero-waste groups. In Waterdown, the two most popular groups have an average of 7,000 members each and are community pages focused on local issues, local residents and general life in Waterdown.

Samantha McGregor: Neighbourhood Facebook groups can be effective tools for building residents’ sense of belonging. They allow for the quick sharing of information, they mobilize the community around different causes and connect local residents to local services. By why is it important for residents to have a strong sense of belonging to their community? Well, a study done by the University of Waterloo found that those with a strong sense of belonging to their community were more likely to volunteer, participate in community and civic activities and were more satisfied with life in general. However, Dr. Bill Lindeke, from the University of Minnesota and now urban geographer in St. Paul, Minnesota, suggests that these neighbourhood groups aren’t always so positive.

Dr. Bill Lindeke: One of the worst ones I found in the Twin Cities here was in a diverse neighbourhood in Minneapolis. And I was, like, wow, this neighbourhood group is terrible. People are saying all sorts of really racist stuff. And then someone told me that it is actually heavily moderated and there’s an even worse version of it that is like the uncut version. And then I was, like, shocked that there could be a worse, a worse neighbourhood group conversation than the one that I was seeing. And it’s a slippery slope, and there are very toxic neighbourhood groups and then there’s others that are, that try to stay more positive and so, the kind of community that’s formed can vary quite a bit. And it can be very negative communities and they can be very, sort of, like, more just people talking about the weather kind of communities. And both of those are equally powerful on the Internet.

Samantha McGregor: Without moderation, these neighbourhood Facebook groups can turn negative quickly. Misinformation spreads, residents can rally behind the wrong issues, and as gentrification increases in small towns, the divide between the old and new residents grows.

Audio: Ambient Tech Music

Samantha McGregor: One of the positives that neighbourhood Facebook groups offer is how quickly information can be shared. Cate Hawkins, a retired special education teacher for the Halton District School board and 31-year resident of Waterdown, says that the best thing about neighbourhood Facebook groups is how you can find out what’s happening almost immediately.

Cate Hawkins: If something’s happening really quickly, like on a snowy day, you can find out within minutes what the roads are like because somebody will post, “Oh, I just drove into work into Hamilton or Burlington, such and such road is really icy don’t go down it.” Or, there was a big explosion sound, power failures out here, power failure, who’s got power who doesn’t? Somebody will have already checked in, “Oh, that’s going to be out for so many hours,” so, it’s just a really quick connection with people who live here to find out what’s going on. It’s almost like having immediate news.

Samantha McGregor: In 2012, Homero Gil de Zuniga, associate professor and director of the community, journalism and communications research at the University of Texas, and a couple of colleagues, found that when citizens know what’s happening in their community and have a chance to reflect on it and discuss it with others, it can foster a cohesive community and enable citizens to engage in civic action and increase their social capital.

Audio: Facebook Messenger ding, iPhone typing noise, iPhone message sent swoosh

Samantha McGregor: Councillor Judi Partridge represents ward 15, which includes Waterdown, and is one of the only city councillors in Hamilton who actively uses Facebook to share information and updates with her constituents. While Partridge acknowledges how helpful neighbourhood Facebook groups can be, she says that the misinformation that spreads through these groups can be harmful. Over the past holiday season, a string of car break-ins was posted about in the Waterdown Facebook groups. According to all the posts on Facebook, within a 24-hour period, there had been 10s of car break-ins and crime was getting out of control. With obvious concerns, Councillor Partridge wanted to find out whether the break-ins were real, or if gossip was spreading like wildfire.

Councillor Judi Partridge: I asked our crime managers for our area, you know I said look, you know, looking at these reports on social media. I’m very concerned. And they said, yeah, well, the reality is there’s only been two reported break-ins. Two. That’s it. So, you know, the information does get not only skewed but it gets fabricated it gets blown out of proportion. And that scares people, so then you get, then you get this kind of fear mongering thing happening where within a community.

Samantha McGregor: Despite the gossip that was happening online about how crime-ridden Waterdown was, according to Councillor Partridge, Waterdown still remained the lowest in all crime categories across Hamilton. This spread of misinformation can have effects on residents’ sense of belonging because if residents worry that their community is a high target for crime, they may just move away. According to 30 Seconds to Check it Out, an awareness campaign about fake news backed by the Quebec and Canadian governments, fake news can have serious impacts on our decision-making process. They say that since information shapes our worldview and that we make important decisions based on that information, when it is invented, falsified, exaggerated or distorted, we will end up making bad decisions. There can be real financial and health impacts of fake news, and it typically promotes fear, racist ideas, bullying and violence, and it can event impact our democracy.

Audio: Ambient Tech Music

Samantha McGregor: Another feature of neighbourhood Facebook groups is how helpful residents can be when they band together around a common objective. In October 2020, Carlos Somocuricio’s 10-year-old son was involved in an accident outside Sweet Paradise Bakery in Waterdown while biking to school. A friend of his wife called to tell him what happened.

Carlos Somocurcio: So, I took the car went there right away. And I found this lady was hugging him comforting him and his bicycle was useless. And then he told me that when he was riding his bike, they were getting out of the parking lot of this bakery and giving a stop for him, and he hit the car in the back. And these guys guy didn’t stop for him to check out if he was injured or not. So, he left my kid there with his broken bicycle, crying like crazy.

Samantha McGregor: Somocurcio said that his son was shaken up and after a visit to the doctor only needed a splint on his arm. However, when they went to report the incident to the police, they didn’t have enough information to file a proper report.  So, Somocurico turned to Facebook. He posted in one of the Waterdown community groups explaining what happened. Within a few hours, his post received over 200 comments.

Carlos Somocurcio: We got a huge amount of responses and we got people offering their video cameras’ recording. One of them told us about a white car, leaving the parking lot at that time. Other guys say, you know my recording on my cell phone are available if you want them. If the police need this. We are hoping to give them. Some people offer to buy a bicycle. Some, others, wanted to make donations. Some other were asking if they could help anything with my boy. It was overwhelming.

Samantha McGregor: Somocurico is from Peru, and his closest family is thousands of kilometres away. He says that if this had happened back home, someone would have walked by and stolen his son’s bike and backpack while he was still lying on the ground, crying.

Audio: Facebook Messenger ding, iPhone typing noise, iPhone message sent swoosh

Samantha McGregor: If you scroll through any of the neighbourhood Facebook groups in Waterdown, or in any community for that matter, you are likely to find positive or neutral posts about the community. However, if you look deep and long enough, you are bound to find posts that are the complete opposite. These negative posts are usually few and far between because the moderators, that almost every neighbourhood Facebook group has, are quick to shut it down.

Samantha McGregor: Jill Chalmers, a 25-year resident of Waterdown who’s only been part of the Waterdown Facebook groups for less than a year, says that people can turn nasty even when simple misunderstanding occurs.

Jill Chalmers: I had posted about someone who — it’s a guy, and you may have seen him, but he walks the streets, he kicks the leaves, he pulls stuff off of trees, and he’s just out there muttering and he’s, he’s kind of mean and nasty, and one day I posted in one of the groups and I said, “You know, I don’t know who this guy is, he frightens me a little bit, I don’t know if I need to be saying something about him. You know, is he schizophrenic is he, he bipolar? Like, you know, I told him to stop pulling, like, ’cuz, he was going past my house and pulling the branches off my trees. So, I told him to stop, right, and he got very angry with me”. But then I, I posted in the group. Well, the blowback on me was unbelievable. It was just this all this nastiness, so people who had lived here longer than me, who know who this person was, everybody had a story about this guy: but he had mental illness, don’t be a bitch, don’t do this, give the guy his space, blah, blah, blah, and I’m the bad guy for bringing it up, and it’s, like, whoa, I never said any of that. I asked: do I need to be worried about this guy? That, that’s what I asked. So, I think there’s, there’s, you know, when you’re typing and when you say stuff on Facebook, people interpret it differently? There’s miscommunication. And then there’s just people out there that are mean and nasty.

Samantha McGregor: While some negativity seemingly comes out of nowhere, sometimes it’s targeted and premediated. A few years ago, there was a Facebook page called Waterdown Gossip, where residents could submit anything they wanted to say about fellow residents and the owner of the page would post the submissions anonymously. Rebecca Montano, a moderator for the Waterdown & Flamborough Community Awareness group, was targeted for her character before the page was reported and shut down by Facebook.

Rebecca Montano: It was an unmoderated group in that sense. And so it was interesting, just interesting to see where that went. And it didn’t last very long. Because again and again, it got really nasty, and when I was a target, I really appreciated when my community stuck up for me, because they saw how just wretched some of the comments got, and, yeah, it was full-on harassment that was going on, and I happen to have good people that I know in the community happens to be a good community and people stop but it’s without any kind of structure it went sideways really fast…. It was it was pretty rough. I have to admit I was unprepared for just the vitriol that was thrown at me. And it was several weeks afterward and after it was shut down that you know, we really kind of stepped back and looked at it and was like, wow, was that just horrible or what?

Samantha McGregor: Associate professor and program director of urban planning at the University of Kansas Bonnie Johnson says in order for neighbourhood Facebook groups to be effective, those within the groups need to have at least some informal, face-to-face connection and that without it, that’s where things can go wrong.

Bonnie Johnson: That’s why it’s so important that if you’re trying to do something that is trying to create neighbourhood and sense of belonging, that you do need those informal ties. I think that phenomenon of racism or, or bullying online points out the need for if you’re going to try to create neighbourhood. You need both, you need online and in-person, you need online ties, and in-person ties…. And so if you cut that in-person tie, I think that makes it easier for social media to bring out the worst in us.

Audio: Ambient Tech Music

Samantha McGregor: Another benefit to these neighbourhood Facebook groups, and one of the best according to Councillor Partridge, is how they connect local residents, especially new ones, to local services.

Councillor Judi Partridge: A few years ago, that there were people moving into the east end of Waterdown in the Mountain View Heights area, and they gravitated towards where they came from, they tended to go back to those communities to do a lot of their, you know, health care, a lot of their grocery shopping and other types of needs. We wanted to get them to turn around and come west and go actually into the village of Watertown, to actually find out what’s going on. So, you know, when you got a lot of new people coming into a community, I think that’s where it’s very helpful. That new people can connect with other new people, but also connect to just understand what is available within their own community. And when, and when you have the Flamborough Santa Claus Parade and when you have the tree lighting and when you have so many community events which we have in a normal year, we would have at least five or six events every single month that you can get people to come to, and they feel that connectivity and ownership of their community.

Samantha McGregor: Khushboo Talreja emigrated from India to Canada in 2019 and moved to Waterdown in December 2020. She says that she joined a Waterdown Facebook group before she had even moved to the area and, as a new resident, finds them extremely helpful.

Kushboo Talreja: There are a lot of shout-outs for a lot of new restaurants that we can try on. So, things like that, it has definitely helped us a lot. Plus, like I see there are, like, loads of break-ins these days and to people’s cars, so it helps us to keep a check on our surroundings as well. And then I have my own business so I’ve been, like, when people ask for accountants, I reach out to them as well, so I’ve got some business through the group, too. I think it has helped me in multiple ways … because I know what’s going around, and it feels, it makes me feel, you know, that I have the knowledge about my neighbourhood that any new resident should. It has made me more confident about my neighbourhood and, like, it has strengthened my, you know, confidence and my decision to move here.

Audio: Facebook Messenger ding, iPhone typing noise, iPhone message sent swoosh

Samantha McGregor: As Waterdown continues to grow and becomes a hot spot for Toronto residents, the once small village is becoming its own large and thriving city. However, like lot of small towns around the world that are close to large metropolitan areas, Dr. Pieter Breek, a researcher and lecturer at the Inholland University of Applied Science, in the Netherlands, says that gentrification is becoming a very real issue. Gentrification occurs when small, typically rural areas begin to attract new residents and businesses, usually from a higher-income bracket than the current ones. While change and gentrification are not always bad, it can often lead to the displacement of current residents as they can no longer afford houses, goods or services in their own community. Between 2010 and 2016, Dr. Breek studied two Facebook community groups that sprung up in Amsterdam-Noord as the city began to develop and people from the larger city across the river began moving to their small town. Both groups had long time Amsterdam-Noord residents, but one group was very welcoming to new residents and the changes that were occurring in their city, whereas the other remained quite negative and hostile towards the newcomers.

Dr. Pieter Breek: I know the neighbourhoods very well. There’s a lot of, there has been a growing conflict between these two groups, between the gentrifiers and long residing residents and over time. So, when I started researching in 2010, this division between those two groups was not so big yet, because also there were not so many newcomers to the neighbourhood. In the last 10 years, the neighbourhood really changed. A lot of new houses have been built, a lot of new economic development poured in and neighbourhoods, but a lot of this economic development didn’t bring in any blue collar jobs but a lot of white collar, more knowledge, higher-educated job, so it’s, it’s also … yeah, the long resigning residents, they don’t think the change in their neighbourhood is really positive for them, houses getting more expensive. The jobs are not really for them. So, what you have seen is that there’s a growing division between those two groups.

Samantha McGregor: While this issue isn’t as large in Waterdown yet, it is potentially heading that way. While there aren’t any explicit posts in any of the Waterdown Facebook groups about old residents disliking new ones, there are occasional passive-aggressive comments that showcase the potential issue. On August 5th, 2020, a self-proclaimed new resident to Waterdown took to a Facebook group to air their grievances and concerns. They complained about high taxes but lack of services and street parking in their new subdivision and compared Waterdown to other cities nearby. One of the post’s 57 comments said, “to summarize, I just moved here. Here’s why it sucks here. Why can’t it be more like these other cities that I could have just chosen to move to instead.” It is subtle comments like these that can lead to the kind of hostility and divide that Dr. Breek has seen.

Audio: Ambient Tech Music

Samantha McGregor: Neighbourhood Facebook groups can be effective tools for building residents’ sense of belonging but they can also be harmful. Whether it’s the spread of information or misinformation, residents being helpful or harmful or new residents feeling connected to their new community, moderation of these groups needs to remain strong. In 2006, Kevin Wise from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and colleagues, studied how moderation would affect people’s intent to participate in web-based communities. They found that many who participate in online communities will act differently online than in face-to-face interactions and that many unmoderated groups will succumb to flaming, which is the repeated insulting of others, or trolling, intended to antagonize an entire community, and eventually, these groups will fall apart.

Samantha McGregor: For someone like Rebecca Montano, who has been the target of this type of nasty behaviour but is also a moderator of one of the Waterdown Facebook groups, she sees the good, the bad, and the ugly of these groups. But, with moderation and guidelines, she does believe that neighbourhood Facebook groups can contribute to a resident’s sense of belonging and that at the end of the day, the good that neighbourhood Facebook groups do outweigh the bad.

Audio: Ambient Tech Music

April 8, 2021: This story was updated to reflect that Carlos Somocurcio is from Peru.